Analysis of “The New Christian Zionism” edited by Gerald McDermott (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016) (1)

InterVarsity Press has been kind enough to send me a copy of a new collection of essays edited by Gerald McDermott. The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel is a handsome paperback that was released in July of 2016, and includes essays from a wide range of scholars.

In its opening chapter, McDermott seeks to clear away what he calls “the underbrush” of the discussion. What he means by this is the various, he claims unwarranted, presuppositions which cloud the discussion surrounding Zionism. Important to the thesis is the idea that “The Christian Zionism that this book proposes is not connected to the dispensationalism described in the previous paragraph (11).” Instead, he argues, the authors in this essay who represent this view will be drawing from a long history of Zionism that finds its genesis in the very words of the New Testament.

He devotes the remainder of his introduction attempting to dispel many of the common notion which attend popular conceptions of Zionism. Since many of these will be addressed at length in later essays, it will suffice here to simply list them.

  • Not Dispensationalsim
  • Not Nationalism
  • Not exclusively Christian
  • Israel did not steal land from Arabs
  • Not racially motivated
  • Not a theocracy

He then engages in the traditional overview of the following chapters.

I must admit that my first reaction upon receiving the book, reading the title, and seeing among the contributors Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, was to think that this is going to simply be a book advocating the so-called progressive dispensationalism that Blasing and Bock have helped to spearhead. However, it was my desire to take McDermott at his word when he wrote that it was not.

However, I believe this claim to be suspect after having read the introduction. We shall see as the book unfolds, but here are the primary reasons for my suspicions.

First, the editor goes out of his way to make extreme claims regarding the distance between the so-called New Christian Zionism and Dispensationalism. He makes the claim, which may very well be true having not read the chapters yet, that “Chapter two traces the history of Christian Zionism over eighteen hundred years before the rise of dispensationalism and then discusses Christian Zionists in the last two centuries who had nothing to do with dispensationalism. The other chapters make no appeal to traditional dispensationalism frameworks in order to make their case (15).” It seems like a strange tactic to take to exclude an entire category of scholarship which engages in Biblical exegesis friendly to your ultimate aim. To quote Hamlet, the lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Second, there are a number of strategies commonly associated with dispensationalism which the author employs. One of these strategies is to define your opponents into being your allies. Although this is not a strategy which is unique to dispensationalism, I find that there are often “gotcha” kinds of statements made in the discussion which seek to show opponents that they really are dispensationalists, but they don’t realize it. The most blatant in the introduction is found in footnote 7, on page 15 (the footnote appears attached to the above quote):

Of course every biblical theologian is a dispensationalist insofar as she recognizes that God works in different eras or dispensations in history. Two of our authors, Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, are originators of the “progressive dispensationalist” school.

This disclaimer also serves to preempt any association with dispensationalism by Blaising and Bock by essentially saying “Well, I know that they are appealing to dispensationalism era frameworks, but everyone does that.”

Finally, there are some common misunderstandings and misrepresentations that are levied against non-dispensationalism schools of thought (particularly Covenant Theology) by dispensationalists that are also rehearsed by McDermott. The first is the Straw Man idea that other branches of Christianity think God abandoned his covenant with national Israel. Commending dispensationalism he writes:

For a century before the Holocaust, dispensationalists were among the few Christians who recognized that God’s covenant with Israel did not stop in AD 33 or 30 (13-14).

Related to this claim is the use of the term Supersessionism. A more academic flavor for the commonly used term Replacement Theoloy, supersessionism refers to the idea that other branches of theology, particularly Covenant Theology, holds that “the Christian church has superseded or replaced Israel as the locus of the covenant that God has made with his people (27).” I would be remiss to not note here that this is not at all what Covenant Theology holds. Rather, Covenant Theology holds that the locus of the covenant God has made with his people has always been with the Church. The Church exists both within Old Testament National Israel, and outside of it. However, at this point I only note this to demonstrate that McDermott is following the same lines of thought and argumentation as dispensationalists do, both classic and progressive. Beyond this, the very thesis of the book is to displace Supercessionism (26-27).

Finally, McDermott uses language that closely associates so-called Supersessionism with anti-Semitism. This again is part and parcel to the Dispensational argument that any theology which does not affirm a concrete literal fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel as the center of his covenant arrangement is systemically anti-Semitic. He closes his introduction with this stunning, albeit well written, paragraph:

In short, the New Christian Zionism hopes to alert scholars and other Christians to beware of the geographical-domestic temptation that anti-Zionism proffers. Supersessionist anti-Zionism proposes theology divorced from embodiment and physicality – a people without a land, a Jesus without his people and land and tradition, and the early church living, as it were, suspended in air above the Palestinian ground. It suggests that land, earth and territory do not matter to embodied human existence. It would not be stretching too much to say that it is ecclesiology and eschatology without incarnation (29).